Francisco Liriano (ESPN: 13 percent owned; Yahoo!: 29 percent owned)
Explaining Liriano’s season to date comes down to two numbers: 1.024 and 0.923. If they were both WHIPs, the difference would be between good and excellent and he wouldn’t really be fit for a waiver wire column since his ownership would be pretty close to 100 percent. The second figure is indeed a WHIP, Liriano’s since his return from the bullpen on May 30 to be precise. The first, on the other hand, is the OPS he allowed over his first six starts of the season.
Those first six starts before his demotion were a crisis in plaid. At the end of April, his ERA was still over 11.00; looking at game score, his best start was a 42, which is particularly damning considering simply starting a game earns pitchers a baseline of 50. His K/BB ratio was just barely above 1.00 and he was yielding a 20 percent line drive rate to fuel at .369 BABIP. Not only did he fail to throw a single quality start during that time, he only had one start where he even made it into the sixth inning let alone out of it, and he never had a start where he allowed fewer than four earned runs.
His demotion to the bullpen was wholly justified, as Liriano simply looked a mess on the mound. Had it not been for injuries and ineffectiveness in the rotation ahead of him, Liriano might well have remained as a reliever, but the Twins’ felt their hand was forced and back into the rotation he went. Since that move, Liriano looks like a completely different pitcher. His ERA is under 3.00, his best game score is now a solid 73, his K/BB ratio is pushing towards 3.00, and his line drive rate is down to a much more manageable 15 percent. He has five quality starts and only narrowly missed recording a QS in all six of his recent starts.
It would be overly reductive to point to a single factor for Liriano’s reemergence as a fantasy option, but the fact that he’s both throwing his potent slider far more frequently now than he was before and generating a greater number of whiffs is a pretty good starting place. It’s necessary to point out that his competition hasn’t been of the highest order, which isn’t his fault per se, but does cast some level of doubt on his ability to continue to pitch well when hitters aren’t helping him by swinging at his pitches out of the zone.
Monday’s scheduled start against the White Sox should be a nice litmus test for the new Liriano. While no one start should ever be taken as gospel, if he continues to use his off-speed pitches to miss bats and generate weak contact on the ground, his ownership will shoot up. If the White Sox get the best of him, it will serve to confirm many potential owners’ suspicions that he can’t be trusted to pitch consistently well. Those looking to replace someone like Brandon Beachy in mixed could do worse than Liriano, though benching him against the White Sox isn’t a plan without benefit. While shallow mixed players will likely have the luxury of waiting to see how Monday goes, AL-only players may want to make the proactive move and then dump him if need be rather than risk missing out on one of the most firmly establish pieces of fantasy kryptonite.
Seth Smith (ESPN: 10 percent owned; Yahoo!: 7 percent owned)
It makes complete sense for a hitter who leaves Colorado for the spacious grounds in Oakland to have a higher OPS after he lands, right? Right. Smith has been a favorite of deeper league players for a while, since his massive platoon splits in Colorado made him largely available and hid the fact that he was still productive in his limited role. He isn’t seeing as much playing time in Oakland’s crowded outfield has he did during his last season with the Rockies, but true to form, he’s giving owners good value even in diminished playing time.
Interestingly, Smith’s once legendary platoon split has settled down a bit now that he’s in Oakland, though it could certainly be due to the fact that he has fewer than 50 PAs against left-handed pitching. He’s still beating righties at a higher clip, .275/.395/.451 versus .241/.333/.448 against lefties, but it’s an improvement over 2011, when the split between his OPS marks was over 300 points. His home run numbers are down, which is to be expected given his move, though ZiPS likes his chances at approaching 15 homers again this year. I think the fact that he’s not playing much against lefties will keep him short of that mark, but there’s virtually no way he doesn’t hit at least 10-12, even in ample pastures of the O.co Coliseum.
Daily league players should have little trouble using Smith in the outfield, even though Oakland’s lineup tends to come out after fantasy lineups lock, just keep an eye on the handedness of the opposing pitcher. Weekly players may struggle a little more with Smith’s intermittent absences, but a little foresight into his opponents for the week may yield enough information to make a smart sit/start decision.